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Starving for Justice


By Anne Pautler

Published Mar 14, 2018 2:45 PM

A 1993 hunger strike led to the creation of UCLA’s César E. Chávez Center.

Cindy Montañez, who eventually served in the California Assembly, sitting in the tent camp. Photo courtesy of "UCLA: The First Century."

There were only nine of them: five students, one professor and three community members. On May 25, 1993, this small group declared a hunger strike. At stake was the survival of Chicana/o studies at UCLA.

The strikers, committed to a water-only fast for 14 days, were surrounded by supporters. A village of tents sprang up across from Murphy Hall, home of the UCLA administration. Teamsters drove by in their trucks; celebrities, including actor Edward James Olmos, stopped by. National attention was focused on the protest.

Rally at Royce Hall. Photo by David Maldonado.

Four days into the strike, one protestor collapsed, requiring medical attention. But the group persevered, and their perseverance paid off. On June 7, more than 400 students, faculty and community supporters celebrated the strike and the creation of the César E. Chávez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction in Chicana and Chicano Studies.

How did Chicana/o studies, established with such high hopes in 1969, come so near to disappearing? Budget retrenchments in the 1980s and the recession of the early 1990s took a toll on the program. As an interdisciplinary center, it had no dedicated faculty, only shared professors who had to earn tenure in their home departments. Enrollments dwindled. By Spring Quarter 1993, only 50 undergraduates were enrolled in the major and 21 in the minor. With further budget cuts facing UCLA, Chancellor Charles E. Young M.A. ’57, Ph.D. ’60 rejected a proposal to expand the program into an academic department.

Labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta. Photo by Sirena Pellarolom.

To a community still reeling from the untimely death of César Chávez on April 23, the chancellor’s April 28 announcement was unutterably painful. A peaceful rally on May 11 turned violent when some protestors occupied the Faculty Center, breaking windows and causing damage estimated at $27,000. Criminal prosecution was threatened. While the charges were eventually dropped and restitution made, that outcome lay almost a year in the future. In the spring of 1993, the disciplinary action against the students seemed another rejection by the university. A series of peaceful demonstrations followed, culminating in the declaration of the hunger strike. The tent village was a daily reminder that the issue was still far from being resolved.

The César Chávez Center described in the June 7 agreement was not yet a full-fledged academic department. But among the important concessions were resources to hire full-time faculty. Some of those initial faculty — Judith Baca, Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Otto Santa Ana — became tenured professors and are still part of the program’s core faculty.

In 2005, Chicana/o studies finally gained departmental status. Two years later, the merger of the department and the César Chávez Center created today’s César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies.

As the 25th anniversary of the hunger strike approaches, 200 students are enrolled in the major and 300 in the minor. Perhaps most impressive, more than 30 are pursuing Ph.D.s. These students, the academic leaders of the future, are a powerful sign of success for a department that nearly disappeared. Perhaps Gaspar de Alba said it best when she told the Daily Bruin: “It’s a phoenix department, because it rose from the ashes of its previous incarnation."



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